Jerry Brown and the Prison Guards

The governor's sweetheart deal with the union comes under intense fire. Plus, Oakland politicians seek to gut the city's already weak lobbying law.

Jerry Brown vowed in January that he could save California’s deficit-stricken general fund more than $300 million next year by slashing public-employee compensation. But after the governor struck questionable deals with the state’s politically powerful prison guards’ union, along with several other government-worker unions, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated that Brown had fallen short of his promise by about $200 million. Brown’s failure, however, should come as no surprise considering that the unions, particularly the prison guards, helped him defeat Republican billionaire Meg Whitman last year.

Brown, in fact, sent a strong message early on that he had no plans to play hardball with the prison guards despite his January vow. Just days after his inauguration, the new governor announced the appointment of two Oakland residents with close ties to the prison guards to top-level positions in his administration. For labor secretary, Brown tapped Marty Morgenstern, who had negotiated lucrative compensation packages for the prison guards while working for ex-Governor Gray Davis. Brown also chose Ronald Yank, a veteran labor lawyer who used to represent the prison guards’ union, as his personnel director.

The prison guards spent nearly $2 million helping Brown beat Whitman, and the governor, not surprisingly, has come under intense criticism for the sweetheart deal he struck with the union. But he strongly denied it was political payback. He argued that the prison guards’ pact is virtually identical to the deals he reached with other public safety unions that backed Whitman. But despite his protestations, there’s no doubt the pacts come nowhere near to reaching the savings he promised.

The deals also fall well short of what California voters want. A recent Los Angeles Times-USC poll showed that 70 percent of residents favor a cap on pension benefits for current and future public employees. In addition, 68 percent of respondents said they want government workers to contribute more to their retirement plans. Fifty-two percent also support raising the age at which public employees can retire.

The poll also may embolden legislative Republicans who appear to be in no mood to negotiate with Brown. The governor needs four GOP votes — two each in the state senate and assembly — to approve the pacts, but as of early this week that prospect appeared dim, considering that Republicans across the country have been blaming public employees for government deficits. Brown’s only hope is that traditional GOP support for the state’s massive prison-industrial complex will deliver the votes he wants.

Gutting Oakland’s Lobbying Law

Oakland’s lobbying law, which was supposed to shine a light on backdoor dealing, has always been a disappointment. The law, for example, has never required corporations and organized labor, to declare how much they’ve spent trying to influence politicians and legislation. And, unlike other cities, Oakland has no lobbyist registration fee, even though taxpayers spend thousands of dollars each year in city staff time keeping track of lobbying . And now, several political leaders in the city want to further water-down the already weak law by exempting many lobbyists from disclosing any of their activities.

Late last week, the city council’s rules committee approved a proposal from Councilwoman Jane Brunner that could exempt half of the currently active lobbyists in Oakland from disclosing who they lobby and for whom they work. Brunner’s proposal came in response to a recommendation from the city’s Public Ethics Commission, which proposed a $180 annual fee for lobbyists and a rewrite of city law to more narrowly define who is a lobbyist.

There is little argument that Oakland’s lobbying law is overly broad. For instance, it appears to require members of the public to register as lobbyists whenever they attempt to influence an elected official or legislation (although the law has never been applied in this manner). But Brunner, other councilmembers, and organized labor in Oakland are using the overbroad argument as a reason to narrow the list of registered lobbyists in the city to exclude numerous people who are paid to lobby politicians.

On the surface, Brunner’s plan sounds innocuous. It would change the city’s definition of a lobbyist to match that of the state. Under her proposal, a so-called “contract” lobbyist — someone hired specifically to lobby — can keep his or her lobbying secret as long as he’s paid no more than $2,000 in any given month (up from the current $1,000). In addition, so-called “in-house” lobbyists — employees of companies or unions who lobby politicians — can keep their lobbying under wraps as long as it represents no more than one-third of their job duties. Brunner, a longtime labor lawyer, contends that this new definition works for the state, so it should work for Oakland, too.

However, unlike state law, Brunner’s proposal does not require private entities to disclose how much they spend on lobbying, nor does it include a lobbyist registration fee to cover costs. And Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who opposes Brunner’s proposal and has submitted a plan that more closely resembles the recommendation from the Public Ethics Commission, argues that the new definition for in-house lobbyists will exempt all of the current ones from having to disclose anything. “In my twelve years of work in the city of Oakland, I don’t know of anyone who meets that definition,” she said of the requirement that one-third of an employee’s work be dedicated to lobbying.

Brunner’s proposal is scheduled to go before the full council next week. But its prospects are uncertain. At last week’s committee hearing, Councilmen Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente voted for it. And sources say that Councilwoman Desley Brooks may also back it. But Brunner needs five votes for her plan to become law. And Schaaf and Councilwomen Nancy Nadel and Pat Kernighan are expected to vote against it. That leaves Rebecca Kaplan, who won’t be at next week’s meeting. Her absence means that Brunner’s proposal probably won’t be enacted next week, but it could be at a later date if Kaplan decides to support it. And if she doesn’t, Brunner’s plan could still become law if Mayor Jean Quan, who also has close ties to labor, provides the deciding vote.

Three-Dot Roundup

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates wants to limit the number of chain-store pharmacies because he contends that the city already has too many of them. … And UC Berkeley is dramatically increasing the number of out-of-state students it’s accepting next year in an apparent budget-related move. Out-of-state students pay much higher tuition than California residents.


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